Winchester Since the Twentieth Century

For the final post following Winchester throughout the centuries, we’re looking at the twentieth and twenty-first, and what has happened in the past 115 years in what is, compared to most cities, a sleepy little place.

Way back in 1908, Winchester was not so sleepy. Over three days, riots broke out. Known as the Winchester Gun Riots, they were caused by protesters’ discontent with the Mayor’s decision to take down the railings around a Russian cannon won in the Crimean War.  The cannons had originally been presented to the citizens of Winchester and not the council. By taking the railings away, the council were seen as stealing what rightfully belonged to the people of Winchester. According to reports, mobs took to the streets, wrecked shops and homes, and the military was called in three times to sort the situation. Reports were recorded to have been exaggerated, with some claiming that only a few windows and lamps were broken. The riots were partially led by Joe Dumper, who strongly believed the former weapon should remain with the citizens. A play was performed in Winchester by the Peter Symonds College about Dumper’s role in the Riot, but otherwise has not remained in Winchester’s public consciousness. The gun responsible for it all was reportedly melted down to make more weapons in the Second World War.

The Winchester Gun Riot - taken from City of Winchester Trust
The Winchester Gun Riot – taken from City of Winchester Trust

During the Second World War, children from Portsmouth and Southampton were evacuated to Winchester, Andover and Romsey. Winchester were preparing to take in up to one thousand children at the beginning of the war, with the city being divided into different sections to maintain control over how the children were divided and housed. The Peninsula Barracks, which had housed the Rifle Brigade from 1800, including during the Second World War, fought in North Africa and were vital in the invasion of North West Europe and takeover of Hamburg in the mid-1940s.

When the army left the Peninsula Barracks in 1995, it left a space for the Winchester Military Museums. Although the former barracks themselves have become private flats, the buildings surrounding are now museums documenting both World Wars, as well as paying particular attention to the Rifle Brigade who once lived there, with one of their museums named after the Brigade’s nickname: the Green Jackets.

The twentieth century was also a time when Winchester carried out more artistic endeavours, with the implementation of the annual Hat Fair in 1974. Despite its name, it is not a celebration of hats (although that would be quite fun to see down Winchester High Street) but instead celebrates street theatre – every summer dozens of street performances take place, including audience participation and workshops for those who wish to take part. The Hat Fair was inspired by the people and heritage of Winchester, originally starting out as a busking festival. In fact, it is where the title of Hat Fair comes from – the tradition of putting money into the busker’s hat. The ‘hats’ are still the fair’s way of making money, and the event is otherwise completely free to attend. Not a bad way to spend a couple of sunny (or in, Winchester’s case, probably rainy) afternoons next summer!

Also in 1974, a series of medieval mystery plays were staged at Wolvesey Castle, a medieval ruin in the centre of Winchester. The amphitheatre put up for these performances were later used during the remake of Brief Encounter (1974) and is one of many instances in which Winchester has been the filming location for large productions.

Wolvesley Castle
Wolvesey Castle

Winchester has now become one of the main filming locations in Britain for even major Hollywood films, mainly due to its low-cost and picturesque, medieval surroundings. Films such as Pride and Prejudice (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and Les Misérables (2012) had parts filmed in Winchester.

As we have just celebrated Christmas, it seems relevant to focus on the beautiful Christmas Market, which started up in Winchester in 2006. It is now recognised as one of the best in Europe, due to its location at Winchester Cathedral, a centrally placed ice rink (only £6 per student!) and an array of various gift stalls full of decorations, presents and (most importantly) food. Although originally planned to perhaps only be a one-off affair, the Christmas Market became so successful it has carried on every year since, bringing over 350,000 visitors each year.

A display at Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market
A display at Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market

It’s no surprise really, as Winchester Cathedral sets up quite an idyllic little area for Winchester’s Christmas Market. It remains, after all these centuries, one of the central points of this little city, from back when it was a small Anglo-Saxon church to one of the most famous cathedrals in the country. It seems fitting then, that this post should end on a song that was quite famous when it was released in 1966, although not directly related to Winchester, a sign of its legacy in the twentieth century.

Further Reading

City of Winchester Trust

The Winchester Riots Joe Dumper

A Brief History of Winchester 

Winchester in the Second World War

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